For many freshmen, there is an adjustment period between high school and college. In addition to living away from their family for the first time and having to do their own laundry, freshman athletes must transition from playing high school freshmen—barely past puberty—to college upperclassmen that present a far stiffer challenge.
Not for Ben Zepfel. The freshman water polo player currently leads his team in goals and is third in assists. Zepfel scored 13 goals in four games over the weekend’s Bison Classic, where the Crimson (12-6, 4-0) went 3-1.
“I really think that the only adjustment period was the game we played the first weekend over the Labor Day invite,” Zepfel said. “For the freshman, as a group, that was the first time we played collegiate water polo and it was a bit shocking to us. But then we realized it’s the same game that we’ve been playing but on a different level.”
Harvard won the first three games of the weekend to stretch its win streak to nine, its longest streak since 2002. But in its last game, the Crimson fell, 10-8, to Bucknell despite four goals, three steals, and an assist from Zepfel.
The Newport Beach, Calif. native has scored 36 of his 43 goals in the last three weekends and contributed three goals in Harvard’s closest victory of the weekend—a one-goal triumph over Navy B.
“Ben works really hard every day in practice to make himself and the team better,” classmate Robbie Fluegge said. “He’s been probably one of our most consistent players in terms of both scoring and defense. It’s inspiring to have people like Ben on your team because you know they will give everything they have night in and night out.”
The freshman class includes the Crimson’s top three scorers in Zepfel, Blake Lee, and Noah Harrison. Freshman goalie Colin Woolway has 71 saves and Lee leads the team in assists and is tied with Harrison for the lead in steals.
“I think the freshmen all came in from great programs and brought a mental attitude about winning that’s been infectious to everyone else,” Harvard coach Ted Minnis said. “They make everyone laugh and they have earned all the respect they have gotten from their teammates by their work ethic and the way they treat their teammates.”
A standout water polo player in high school, Zepfel was a member of the U18 National Championship team from Southern California and was named the 2011 Scholar-Athlete of the Year by the Orange County Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. After graduating, Zepfel has followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Evan Zepfel ’12, a graduated member of last year’s Harvard squad.
“[Evan and Ben] are very similar in the passion that they have for the game and how much they love water polo,” Minnis said. “They play the game very similarly but also different in that Evan was more of an attacker and shot the ball real well from the outside. Ben is versatile but he feels better with his back to the goal even though he can also shoot from the outside.”
The Crimson has only four games remaining before the Ivy Championships, held Oct. 27 at Yale, and Zepfel said that between now and then, Harvard has plenty to improve on. The team will travel to California this coming weekend to play in the Claremont Convergence, which, according to Zepfel, is a prime opportunity to play games against quality opposition.
“This weekend, we are going to be playing some of the best teams in the country,” Zepfel said. “We will play UCSB, who will be ranked number two in the country. After we go out there and play some really high level teams and get some experience playing at a high level, we’ll be able to come back to [the Eastern Championships] having learned a lot.”
The Crimson has rebounded to win nine of ten after a starting the season 3-5. Junior captain Will Roller added that the loss comes at an opportune time, when Harvard has time to work on its play before the Nov. 3 Northern Championship and Nov. 16 Eastern championships.
“We have a lot of the raw physical abilities needed to be very competitive,” Roller said. “But there are mental lapses we need to overcome in order to make that leap from a good team to great team.”